The Way We Perceive Victorian
The way we perceive Victorian art is undergoing a large-scale revision within the modern era. Methods of display regarding these works are vastly changing in comparison to the historical displays seen within the Victorian period. Works that were often disregarded throughout the 20th century are now being firmly placed back in the spotlight, through exhibitions and popular culture. My aim is to examine this changing attitude towards Victorian pieces, specifically through the lens of British exhibition culture. Through investigating various exhibitions ranging from the Victorian era through to the present day, I will attempt to highlight the change being undertaken when displaying and categorising these works, while focusing mainly on the display of Victorian art after the millennium. Scholarship regarding this subject has increased dramatically in recent years, with the work of Tim Barringer forming the basis of my investigation. Whilst drawing influence from Barringer and other scholarly sources, I will attempt to align myself with social aspects of art within the Victorian era, looking at British societies desire to bring themselves in line with France, but also how this desire has also been echoed within the modern era. I aim to explain the new attention that’s been paid to this social history, whilst also highlighting the changing display techniques employed in the modern era in comparison to those in the Victorian period.
In 1848, a group of three young artists banded together, fueled by their hatred for the standard that had been set within the British artistic scope, through the teaching of institutes such as the Royal Academy . They believed that art had become corrupted by focusing on techniques used after the time of Raphael, becoming too structured and lacking emotion , with the group aptly becoming named the Pre-Raphaelites. This breakaway from the norm naturally brought about critics and plaudits alike, providing a spark within an otherwise predictable period. In the modern era, works by the Pre-Raphaelites, amongst other Victorian artists, are beginning to be reconsidered. Between the groups height of success and the post millennial era, they have been largely overlooked when discussing the modernist movement. Instead, the concept of modernist works within the scope of major institutions has been dominated by mainly French and other European artists. Within the Victorian era, Pre-Raphaelite works were included in many large exhibitions in the major galleries across the country. A perfect example of Victorian exhibition culture is the Manchester Treasures exhibition of 1857. The exhibition was constructed to expose the wider public to the Fine Arts, positioned in Manchester as it was deemed the most practical place for the working class to gather.
Regarding the new attention surrounding the societal context of Victorian exhibitions, much of the scholarly focus has been placed upon the motives behind such exhibits. Helen Rees Leahy explores the deep rooted social purpose behind exhibits during the Victorian period in great detail. Regarding the Manchester Treasures Exhibition, Leahy examines how Prince Albert formally approved the opening of this exhibition on the condition that it appealed not only to the gentrified and educated, but also to the wider populous to “speak powerfully to the public
mind” . The concept behind exhibits such as these was open up the arts to sections of the population that had previously been devoid of such experiences, giving them the opportunity to become more cultured and gain decorum through the practice of viewing art. This idea of education and culture for the masses was something completely new within Britain, with exhibitions of this scale typically being held in London at large institutes such as the National gallery being largely viewed almost strictly by artists and scholars alike.
This radical change in approach was a direct attempt by British society to align itself with the European culture of artistic appreciation and class for the masses. Interestingly, Leahy makes a direct comparison between the exhibition and French culture itself, through a male figure who had been pictured within the Illustrated London News . Leahy describes this individual as embodying the ‘metropolitan individuality’, also likening him to Charles Baudelaire’s flaneur . This comparison is a near perfect embodiment of the modern revisionist movement that is taking place and is certainly a purposeful inclusion. Leahy uses this comparison at the beginning of the text to create a clear and sustained relationship between Victorian and French culture from the offset, not only setting out her own argument but laying out the arguments of the revisionists as a whole for the reader. This openness in comparison between the two cultures is something much more natural that the narrative portrayed by the Galleries within the Victorian Period, which was employed almost forcefully in order to align Britain with the French’s modernity.
The societal impact of such exhibitions has been explored by Barringer, who focusses on the South Kensington museum and the version meant to mimic it on a smaller scale in Jaipur, India. Barringer examines how both institutes were ‘charged with meaning’ , carrying with them a strong message from the authorities that had created them. The similar intentions between the two was to provide an education to the general public whilst in turn partaking in a nationalistic self-representation. Barringer states how the site in Jaipur became almost a ‘site for free play of the imagination’, achieving this through its use of a strong and heavily encouraged structure regarding the publics interaction with the works. This desire to create a more civilized culture for Britain and its international communities is highlighted through the nations attempts to create a parallel within India. This concept of display has clearly changed over the years, with museums in the modern era highlighting Victorian works for their own distinctive features. This is different to the method of display within the Victorian period, wherein works were idolized based on their relation to other genres and periods in history. In comparison to Leahy, Barringer focuses a lot more on the aesthetic aims of these exhibitions, how such an aesthetic allowed for the employment and understanding of a discourse for the general public’s benefit , focusing much more on the pre-meditation within every aspect of these museums design.
These attempts to align Victorian artwork with other genres was evident within the Manchester Treasures exhibition. The Victorians were obsessed with the idea of history and the preservation of arts. As examined by Elizabeth Pergam , the organizers positioned the exhibition in such a way as to create a parallel with other older artworks, with the belief being that Britain had taken the helm in the field of Old Masters painting . The Victorians themselves classified these works as a new rendition of a classic form, so it is no surprise that these works were considered outdated throughout the later period of British History. The concept of these exhibitions as being counterintuitive for the progression of Victorian are has been examined by Barringer , who explores such curatorial exhibits as a reason as to why Victorian art was perhaps so undervalued within the 20th century. Similarly to Leahy, Barringer explores the concept of Victorian curatorial endeavors and just how important the exhibition culture was within Victorian Britain. Focusing on the motive behind such exhibits as a “mission of social and economic activism” , Barringer examines how the museums were purposed as an educational tool for individuals who would’ve never experienced the intellectual arts before. Instead of the inclusive and gentrified museums and galleries that had dominated the early 19th century, the country found itself with a free for all experience of Fine art. Barringer states that the museums of Victorian Britain became a “paradox which locates the modern precisely in the act of preserving and presenting the material culture of the past” . I would argue that this concept is imperative in understanding the diminishment of the Victorian period of art. If the Victorians believed that to be modern meant to preserve the history of the nation, it is natural then that; during a period of such technological and societal advancement, a time came where Britain adopted a more forward-facing stance. Such a change in outlook would thus render the past and anything associated with it archaic within the public and scholarly scope, instead opting to examine and idolize the apparently more forward thinking and constantly developing modern art from across the continent that the state had already strived so hard to emulate.
Now, in the modern era, Victorian art is being celebrated and displayed in a completely different fashion. Instead of classifying these works as a response to other masterpieces or techniques, much like the parallels between the old masters and the Victorian artists within the Manchester Treasures exhibition , they are now applauded for their own style. In an attempt to explain why Victorian art has been catapulted back into the public eye, Chloe Johnson explores how the development of mass media has played a large part in the reemergence and consequent reflective discussion of Victorian art. Johnson examines the importance of the various forms of media, ranging from radio broadcasts to broadsheet newspapers arguing the importance of the development of these platforms in relation to the emergence of these works. Johnson’s argument is that through the availability of opinions from scholars, critics and journalists, the development of media had created a ‘capacity to
re interpret work and biographical content’ . It is true that the great increase of interest in Victorian art from the media, scholars and institutes alike has coincided with the chronological timeline of the development of such widespread media, culminating in the subject of Johnsons work, the BBC documentary titled Desperate Romantics in 2009. I would argue that this aspect of study is crucial, especially when considering the post millennium aspect of Victorian exhibition displays.
The rejuvenation of scholarship regarding these works has been met with architectural rejuvenation also, with institutions now incorporating Victorian and Pre-Raphaelite works with their 20th century collections. Instead of attempting to align themselves with historical masters as the Manchester treasures exhibition did, they are now being displayed as a genre within their own right. Barringer explores this concept using the Manchester art gallery as an example , examining how they have regressed from encouraging a ‘heritage’ thematic display within their Victorian works, instead providing a direct and more modern approach through linking them via a bridge to the museums 20th century works. Barringer, working from Elizabeth Prettejohn’s The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites , states how this as an “architectural analogy for recent revisionist accounts of Pre-Raphaelitism as a proto-modern, even modernist movement” . This changing attitude after the millennium towards Victorian artists as potentially major contributors to the modernist movement has culminated in numerous large exhibits across Britain and in fact some of Europe’s biggest institutions. An example of this is an exhibit dedicated to the works of Rossetti took place in 2003, held at the Walker Gallery in Liverpool . Interestingly, this exhibit was co curated by the Van Gogh Museum, with an exhibit being held in Amsterdam also. Surely then, such an inclusion of Pre-Raphaelite works in a museum that is marketed as “a museum for the works of Van Gogh and his contemporaries” is a perfect indication of the way that the attitude towards Victorian art has shifted.
Another major example of the changing display techniques regarding Victorian arts in the modern era is the Reflections exhibit within the National Gallery.
As touched upon by Barringer, the National Gallery had previously not held a single piece of Victorian art within their main collection, except for a painting by Leighton positioned so high above a staircase it would be impossible to truly appreciate . Yet in 2007 they have changed their stance and displayed an entire exhibition of Pre-Raphaelite artwork alongside the works of Van Eyck. This exhibition, co curated by the Tate Britain, is indicative of the change in scholarship regarding Victorian works. The exhibit focuses around the Van Eyck Arnolfini portrait, examining how the mirror used within this image potentially influenced a number of key Victorian artists . The use of mirrors within Victorian works was heavily criticized at the beginning of the period, due to its glamorisation of vanity. Now however, the inclusion is being hailed as a major influence within the artworks emanating from the period. The title of the exhibition itself, Reflections, could be perceived as a nod to the revision within scholarship regarding Victorian artworks that is taking place. Clearly the attitude towards these works is changing, with a Nationalist institution that for so long had ignored the impact of the Victorian era within the British scope of art, now acknowledging the period as masterminding a change within British art itself . Amongst these exhibitions, there are numerous other large and highly publicized exhibits that have been displayed highlighting the sheer volume of fresh interest on the subject across the country. Exhibits such as Ford Maddox Brown: Pre-Raphaelite Pioneer held at the Manchester Art Gallery between 2011 and 2012 , or the Millais exhibition in the Tate Britain in 2007 , example the idea that the Victorian era is certainly being revisited within the post millennial era. Victorian artworks are now being displayed under the same rooves as modernist pieces, with subtle comparisons and relations being made between the two genres by some of the most respected institutes in the country.
In conclusion, it is clear that developments are taking place regarding how we classify but more importantly how we understand these works and the Victorian period as a whole. The establishing of the idea of a Victorian Avant-Garde, which has only recently been depicted in a large exhibition at Tate Britain aptly named Pre-Raphaelite: Victorian Avant Garde , between 2012 and 2013, highlights the concept that Victorian art in fact has just as much to say in the discourse of modern art as other already established modern and impressionist works. Through this comparison to the Avant Garde movement, a historically French term often linked with the modernist and impressionist movements, the Tate itself is making a clear and sustained connection between these movements across Europe and Victorian artwork. Within a range of Victorian artworks there are clear similarities in terms of subject matter and style, for example the use of city scenes and females which create a clear relation to French modernist pieces. It is clear to see that in the modern era, museums and galleries adopt a much different approach than they have previously. However, despite it being true that we have not reached a point where they are considered equal currently, it is clear that with increasing scholarship and public promotion Victorian art may well soon be reaching a critical mass in the argument of modernism.